- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 24, 2005

Turkey leftovers will be the dish of the day for most of us, but it’s not too late to give thanks for a fall TV season that didn’t live down to the usual low expectations.

Every year, the networks bombard us with new shows, out of which just a lucky few survive. Some leave us scratching our heads over how they ever made it on the air in the first place.

“A Minute with Stan Hooper,” anyone?

The fall of 2005 should go down as one of the better season starters in recent memory.

The strong fall might reflect the networks’ need to compete with cable programming from the likes of HBO and FX. It’s hard to imagine a show like NBC’s “My Name is Earl,” a quirky, laugh-track-free affair shot with one camera, making it to the air a decade ago, let alone thriving.

So far, we haven’t seen any network-makers, as uber-producer Jerry Bruckheimer dubs them, but the usual cancellation blood bath never happened.

Fox swallowed hard and yanked its legal comedy “Head Cases” off its schedule after just two weeks, but even it proved far superior to stinkers of yore.

Let’s consider a quick list of some modest hits — UPN’s “Everybody Hates Chris,” the WB’s “Supernatural,” NBC’s “Earl,” Fox’s “Prison Break,” CBS’ “Ghost Whisperer” and “How I Met Your Mother” and ABC’s “Commander in Chief.” The latter is so juicy, some on the political right insist it’s a warm-up for a certain presidential contender and U.S. senator from New York.

Never underestimate the power of the boob tube.

The wave of paranormal shows enjoyed a lukewarm reception. ABC’s “Invasion,” CBS’ “Threshold” and NBC’s “Surface” are all still on the air, but their tepid ratings could ultimately spell doom.

Fox hasn’t yet unleashed its seasons of “24” or “American Idol,” two can’t-miss hits, and any year without another “CSI” or “Law & Order” clone can only be a good thing.

Perhaps the biggest reason to cheer the fall season lies in the way we watch TV — or will watch it in the months — and years — to come.

Apple IPod users can download “Lost” or “Desperate Housewives” at their convenience. The folks at TiVo announced Monday that its users soon will be able to transfer recorded programs onto IPods and PlayStation Portables.

That’s a win-win for the studios and television viewers alike.

If the way we watch television is changing, so, too, is the conventional wisdom about what kinds of shows guarantee big audiences.

“My Name is Earl’s” executive producer and creator, Greg Garcia, says just a few voices within NBC suggested tweaking “Earl” to make it more like the conventional sitcom, but otherwise, the network let him make the show he wanted.

Mr. Garcia, who grew up in Arlington, credits an aggressive marketing campaign for his show’s fast start.

“I’ve been doing this for 10 or 11 years. I’ve never seen a campaign like that,” he says. “You couldn’t go three blocks in L.A. without seeing [star Jason Lee’s] face.”

Given “Earl’s” early success, networks might not wrinkle their collective noses the next time a writer suggests a series that doesn’t fit the television cookie cutter, Mr. Garcia suspects.

Mr. Bruckheimer, who suffered a rare career hiccup when his WB drama “Just Legal” got yanked after four episodes, says some TV tenets stay the same no matter the season.

“In television, you have to have the right time slot, a good lead in, the right network,” Mr. Bruckheimer says. “It has nothing to do with the quality of the material. [The show] has to find an audience.”

What is different in recent years, Mr. Bruckheimer notes, is the networks’ reliance on dramas over comedies. Because sitcoms typically skew younger, networks may be acknowledging that older audiences need more than simplistic stories to grab their attention.

The new season hasn’t been devoid of ratings casualties.

The life-support tubes have been all but been pulled from Fox’s “Arrested Development,” and ABC’s intriguing “Night Stalker” got sent to the morgue before it could make us forget Darren McGavin’s 1970s original.

Let’s be grateful that for once the list of disappointments isn’t as long as Santa’s naughty-and-nice scroll.

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